I’ve written previously about how conscious and unconscious anxiety can affect the way we think and damage the quality of our decisions. When the anxiety is unconscious, we have to become aware of it before we can address it.

Here are some signs that you may be experiencing unconscious anxiety:  

  1:  Avoidance: Difficulty starting tasks (procrastination); finding excuses not to attend meetings; poor work-life balance.

  2:  Isolation: Working alone; deferring major group decisions.

  3: Anger: Unconscious anxiety often manifests as anger as people are sometimes more comfortable with anger than anxiety.

  4: Beliefs (self-limiting):  I blew my diet, I’m weak-willed.  I didn’t get the promotion I wanted, I’m never going to progress in this company.  Self-limiting beliefs are formed through unconscious          and negative self-talk. 


Anxiety, pessimistic beliefs and negative feelings limit your productivity and your personal well-being. However, once we are aware of our feelings we can start to positively address them. Martin Seligman, PhD, describes two methods of addressing pessimistic feelings.

The first is distraction, which is quick and helpful when you are at work and don’t have time to delve deeper. Wear a rubber band around your wrist.  When you notice a negative or pessimistic thought snap the rubber band and tell yourself STOP. This combination of physical and mental interruption allows you to shift your attention away from your pessimistic thoughts. This method clearly has limitations and it does not actually address the cause of your pessimistic thoughts.

Another, more tech-friendly way to monitor your thoughts throughout the day is to set an hourly timer on your mobile device.  When the alarm goes off, stop and reflect on what you were thinking.  Was it positive, neutral or negative?  If you find, using either of these methods, that you need to disrupt negative thoughts repeatedly throughout the day commit to schedule time later to explore your thoughts more deeply using the method described below.

Seligman’s second method of addressing pessimistic feelings is called disputation. This is the process of actively challenging and attacking negative beliefs. To do this we can use what Seligman calls the ABCD Model.

1.       Adversity: Identify what is bothering you, what is the problem.

2.       Beliefs: What are your beliefs about that adversity?

3.       Consequences: What are the consequences of those beliefs?

4.       Disputation: Are your beliefs accurate? Do you have evidence to support your negative beliefs? Are there alternatives? What are the implications of such beliefs, and are they useful?  


Often you will find that your negative beliefs were exaggerations of reality. When we can successfully dispute our subjective beliefs with objective facts we can shift the consequences. The goal is to shift our beliefs and their consequences from something dramatic and global to something more manageable and localized. This will allow us to achieve better, more efficient outcomes at home and at work.  

Humans are responsible for making countless decision every day. Even when having a particularly bad day we are still required to get up and make choices. Unfortunately, our ability to make good decisions can be hijacked when we experience stress. The cause of this disruption exists in a small region of the brain called the amygdala.

The amygdala resides in the hind brain and is responsible for our emotional processing. The amygdala doesn’t simply process emotion but prioritizes which is the most significant emotion on which to focus.  When anxiety and fear are present that is what the amygdala focuses on processing.  The impact – fast processing of information is eroded.  When our brain is busy managing stress it is not able to process other relevant information.

The brain is exceedingly interconnected; activating one region can affect the operation of another. When the amygdala is in overdrive and preoccupied it can affect the function of our executive region. The executive areas of the brain are responsible for among other things, short-term memory and our ability to calculate the risks and benefits of a decision. 

So how can we stop our unconscious brain from taking our conscious brain hostage? This is a particularly tricky question because we might not even be aware the crime is happening. One simple way to stop your mind from dwelling on the negative is to intentionally focus on the positive. In his book, Flourish: Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Martin Seligman describes an activity called the “what went well” exercise. Take 10 minutes at the end of every day and write three things that went well and why they went well. Write every day for a month and then take some time to review what you’ve written. This process has multiple benefits:

  • ·         It gives your amygdala a break by intentionally focusing on the positive.
  • ·         Reviewing your daily notes is a way to discover patterns of behavior that have allowed you to be successful in your day to day life.   
  • ·         Repeated over time, it can increase your happiness and reduce feelings of depression.


At first, writing about ‘what went well’ might seem awkward but given some time it will become second nature.  So, silence that inner cynic and give it try.

In 2011 JC Penny was facing low to negative stock growth. The Board, obviously concerned with their organization’s lackluster performance, decided to make a change in leadership. They tapped Ron Johnson, a former Apple Inc. executive who left that company during a period of unprecedented growth. Johnson quickly identified a number of areas, which in his opinion, were the root cause of JC Penny’s poor performance. Taking decisive action he proceeded to direct systemic changes throughout their stores. At the beginning of 2013, almost a year after Johnson took the helm, JC Penny’s stock has fallen an additional 40%. There is no one reason why Penny’s stock fell so sharply, one could even make an argument about consumer spending on the whole. However, clear mistakes were made at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure that could have been avoided. I have discussed Michael Watkins book the First 90 Days in a previous blog. I couldn’t help but be reminded of his work while reading about the current state of affairs at Penny’s. In his book, Watkins outlines how leaders can make a successful transition into a new organization. Had Johnson only read the introduction he would have, perhaps, rethought some of his strategies.

One of the central principles in Watkins’ book is to create a learning plan. Watkins underlines the importance of learning the “…markets, products, technologies, systems, and structures, as well as [the] culture and politics” of an organization. At the very least Johnson failed to recognize at least two of these principles. He failed to understand the market he was catering to and he failed to understand the culture of the organization he would run.

Among his many strategies for updating Penny’s, Johnson ordered that large discounts and customer incentive plans be cut. He also eliminated the clearance racks from most Penny stores. Johnson went a step further with plans to completely overhaul the look of the stores. Arguing that customers will prefer a more boutique feel as opposed to the conventional department store floor plan.

One of the most important steps in learning about a new company is gathering information from the veterans of that organization. These people understand the history of a company, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and in the case of a retailer, who buy’s their products. Allen Questrom, a former Penny’s CEO, stated that ‘The customer has said she’s very much into value, and coupons and sales are very much part of her vocabulary.’ Had Johnson considered this statement he may have decided that eliminating the values that his customers have come to expect was ill advised.

Johnson also exhibited a flagrant lack of cultural awareness. Among his new hires was former apple executive Michael Kramer who became Penny’s COO. Mr. Kramer is quoted as saying ‘I hated the Penny’s culture…it was pathetic.’ Instead of attempting to understand the culture, Johnson and his cohorts attempted to bend the Penny’s culture to their will. To this end Johnson dramatically reduced the number of meetings between store managers. These meetings were seen as important by the incumbents within the organization and were historically used as a tool to discuss metrics and best practices.

Within 17 months of Johnson’s decision to ignore his customers, his employees, and his company’s history and culture, his tenure as CEO ended. J.C. Penny’s board decided to reverse their decision and reinstate their former chief executive.

I have to wonder, had Johnson been more willing to learn about Penny’s history and culture would he have had a different experience? I don’t think anyone would deny that Penny’s was in need of some fresh ideas. However, innovation was not Johnson’s problem. He simply failed to heed some fundamental principles about joining a new organization, especially as a top leader. If you are about to make a transition to a new organization I strongly recommend Dr. Watkins book. You can find a link to The First 90 Days in the space below.

“For Penney's Heralded Boss, the Shine Is Off the Apple”, Dana Mattioli, The Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2013.

The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins, http://www.amazon.com/The-First-90-Days-Strategies/dp/1591391105

Tax deadline looms – how do I know? Each day I pass a large dancing Statue of Liberty waving, and sometimes twirling high in the air, large sign boards at a busy intersection near my home. To be honest, I have no idea what is written on the signs and I’ve never visited the tax preparation service they promote. But no matter how many times I pass this spectacle – I am mesmerized by the sight. Who are these people willing don a milky-green dress and matching spiky crown? Willing to dance, prance and gyrate to a beat heard only by them (though in some cases I’ve noted ear phones discreetly tucked into the costume neckline) disregarding the weather or time of day. Over the course of the day and week, the wearer changes – men, women, black, white, and Hispanic – each transforming into the Statue of Liberty character with varying levels of dance skill and but equally energetic. At first, I could only imagine myself and what it would be like to be inside the costume – feeling hot, tired and embarrassed. On almost any measure, it would be hard to think of a job for which I would be so poorly suited. But these Liberties did not look embarrassed – or remotely out of sorts. In fact, they seemed…well, happy. I’m not sure what hiring process was used to find and slot these dancing Liberties but I have to believe that was qualitatively different than the one used to hire tax preparers.

The lesson for us all? When you have a role to fill:

  • Take time to identify the core competencies unique to the role
  • Develop a hiring process designed to measure those core competencies
  • Hire based on those core competencies

Does this take extra time? Yes. But the result will be an incumbent who has both the skills and temperament to do the job and be happy in the doing.

Don’t have a dancing Statue of Liberty in your neighborhood? You can check out a variety of waving Liberties on Youtube. The last time I looked there were many to choose from – some with more than 8,000 views. Evidence that I’m not the only one who seems mesmerized by the Dancing Liberties.

On Saturday July 6th 2013, Asiana flight 214 crashed while on approach to San Francisco airport, killing two people and injuring scores more. The initial investigation concluded the cause of the crash was unlikely to be mechanical and was most likely due to pilot error. The flight originated from Seoul South Korea, a country whose pilots are familiar with such tragedies as discussed in detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.

In Outliers, Gladwell describes specific behaviors associated with a variety cultures around the world. In the case of the Koreans, Gladwell describes a propensity for deference when operating in hierarchical structures. He uses the example of a flight landing in Guam, similar to Asiana 214, the plane crashed on approach. Cockpit recordings from that flight indicated that the flight crew were aware of the pilot’s error but were unwilling to challenge the senior pilot until it was too late.

We may not know for some time what caused flight 214 to crash in San Francisco but it does pose some interesting questions about culture.

  • What kind of culture are you promoting in your organization?
  • Are individual contributors free to express themselves and their ideas or are they discouraged from doing so?

In his writing on liberty, Jon Stuart Mills notes that we should never suppress the minority opinion. Minority opinions are critical; if correct they can help to persuade those in the majority to the right path. If they are incorrect they will only act as reinforcement of the majority opinion. There is nothing more dangerous in a global society or a business culture than “group think” or a “yes” culture. Such a culture can only lead to stagnation and error.

What kind of culture are you promoting?